Life Isn’t Just Suffering
“He showed me the brightness of the world.”
That’s how my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, once characterized his debt to his teacher, Ajaan Lee. His words took me by surprise. I had only recently come to study with him, still fresh from a school where I had learned that serious Buddhists took a negative, pessimistic view of the world. Yet here was a man who had given his life to the practice of the Buddha’s teachings, speaking of the world’s brightness. Of course, by “brightness” he wasn’t referring to the joys of the arts, food, travel, sports, family life, or any of the other sections of the Sunday newspaper. He was talking about a deeper happiness that comes from within. As I came to know him, I gained a sense of how deeply happy he was. He may have been skeptical about a lot of human pretenses, but I would never describe him as negative or pessimistic. “Realistic” would be closer to the truth. Yet for a long time I couldn’t shake the sense of paradox I felt over how the pessimism of the Buddhist texts could find embodiment in such a solidly happy person.
Only when I began to look directly at the early texts did I realize that what I thought was a paradox was actually an irony—the irony of how Buddhism, which gives such a positive view of a human being’s potential for finding true happiness, could be branded in the West as negative and pessimistic.
You’ve probably heard the rumor that “Life is suffering” is Buddhism’s first principle, the Buddha’s first noble truth. It’s a rumor with good credentials, spread by well‐respected academics and Dharma teachers alike, but a rumor nonetheless. The truth about the noble truths is far more interesting. The Buddha taught four truths—not one—about life: There is suffering, there is a cause for suffering, there is an end of suffering, and there is a path of practice that puts an end to suffering. These truths, taken as a whole, are far from pessimistic. They’re a practical, problem‐solving approach—the way a doctor approaches an illness, or a mechanic a faulty engine. You identify a problem and look for its cause. You then put an end to the problem by eliminating the cause.
What’s special about the Buddha’s approach is that the problem he attacks is the whole of human suffering, and the solution he offers is something human beings can do for themselves. Just as a doctor with a surefire cure for measles isn’t afraid of measles, the Buddha isn’t afraid of any aspect of human suffering.
And, having experienced a happiness totally unconditional, he’s not afraid to point out the suffering and stress inherent in places where most of us would rather not see it—in the conditioned pleasures we cling to. He teaches us not to deny that suffering and stress or to run away from it, but to stand still and face up to it, to examine it carefully. That way—by understanding it—we can ferret out its cause and put an end to it. Totally. How confident can you get?
A fair number of writers have pointed out the basic confidence inherent in the four noble truths, and yet the rumor of Buddhism’s pessimism persists. I wonder why. One possible explanation is that, in coming to Buddhism, we subconsciously expect it to address issues that have a long history in our own culture. By starting out with suffering as his first truth, the Buddha seems to be offering his position on a question with a long history in the West: is the world basically good or bad?
According to Genesis, this was the first question that occurred to God after he had finished his creation: had he done a good job? He then looked at the world and saw that it was good. Ever since then, people in the West have sided with or against God on his answer, but in doing so they have affirmed that the question was worth asking to begin with. When Theravada—the only form of Buddhism to take on Christianity when Europe colonized Asia—was looking for ways to head off what it saw as the missionary menace, Buddhists who had received their education from the missionaries assumed that the question was valid and pressed the first noble truth into service as a refutation of the Christian God: look at how miserable life is, they said, and it’s hard to accept God’s verdict on his handiwork.
This debating strategy may have scored a few points at the time, and it’s easy to find Buddhist apologists who—still living in the colonial past—keep trying to score the same points. The real issue, though, is whether the Buddha intended his first noble truth to answer God’s question in the first place and—more importantly—whether we’re getting the most out of the first noble truth if we see it in that light.
It’s hard to imagine what you could accomplish by saying that life is suffering. You’d have to spend your time arguing with people who see more than just suffering in life. The Buddha himself says as much in one of his discourses. A brahman named Long‐nails (Dighanakha) comes to him and announces that he doesn’t approve of anything. This would have been a perfect time for the Buddha, if he had wanted, to chime in with the truth that life is suffering. Instead, he attacks the whole notion of taking a stand on whether life is worthy of approval. There are three possible answers to this question, he says: (1) nothing is worthy of approval, (2) everything is, and (3) some things are and /some things aren’t. If you take any of these three positions, you end up arguing with the people who take either of the other two positions. And where does that get you?
The Buddha then teaches Long‐nails to look at his body and feelings as instances of the first noble truth: they‘re stressful, inconstant, and don’t deserve to be clung to as self. Long‐nails follows the Buddha’s instructions and, in letting go of his attachment to body and feelings, gains his first glimpse of the Deathless, of what it’s like to be totally free from suffering.
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